All My Sons

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Photo by Steve DeBartolomeo

By Philip Pearce

ALL MY SONS  is still a stunning piece of American theater seventy years after it launched Arthur Miller’s distinguished playwriting career. In an early artistic manifesto, Miller declared he wanted to write plays “that would grab an audience by the throat and not release them, rather than presenting an emotion which you could observe and walk away from.” The new All My Sons at Jewel Theatre Company, Santa Cruz, does just that.

Like subsequent Miller master works, Death of a Salesman and The Price, it’s about human responsibility. What deceptions do we feed ourselves and others when we fail to take responsibility? What happens when people and events demand that we face up to our failures? As in all of his early body of work Miller focuses on the family as the immediate setting for this crisis of human obligation. But, like The CrucibleAll My Sons also reaches out beyond the home town and family of its likeable, everyday hero, forcing him to explore what he owes to the wider community and nation that have formed him and the family he loves.

One of many glories of the new Jewel production is Kent Dorsey’s brilliant scenic design, which forces us, even before the play begins, to make this leap of awareness above and beyond the folksy immediacy of the Keller family’s mid-Western back yard. The set’s hometown porch and doors, its windows and back lawn are covered not with a patina of Sherwin-Williams period colors but with a skin-tight wrapping of blown-up headlines from the troubled journalism of World War 2.

For the people who live in the house and yard, it all looks untroubled enough when the play starts. Allen Gilmore’s Joe Keller seems an outgoing, almost exuberantly sociable neighborhood figure. Then, in a chance piece of crime thriller horseplay with a neighborhood moppet named Bert—the personable Jake Miller the night I went—Joe and the boy agree that the Keller basement is now a jail full of imaginary crooks. This passing bit of backyard foolery sparks an immediate angry eruption from Joe’s wife Kate (Nancy Carlin) and we gradually learn that factory-owner Joe has had his own brief stay in a real prison. Accused of selling faulty warheads to the U.S. Army, he’s been exonerated on a claim he was ill the day of the shady transaction. But he has returned home, leaving his neighbor and business partner Steve Deever to serve time for the crime.

Joe’s trial and brief imprisonment may be topics Kate avoids but it’s a different matter when it comes to the fate of their two sons. Chris (in a fine performance by Tommy Gorrebeeck), has returned from wartime active duty; his elder brother Larry hasn’t. Missing in action for three years, Larry is presumed dead by everyone but the emotionally sensitive Kate. She homes in feverishly on newspaper reports of miraculous returns of long-missing war veterans, seeks signs in nature and horoscope readings to shore up her obsession that Larry is still alive.

These cracks in the surface of the Kellers’ domestic peace deepen dangerously when Chris announces that he plans to propose marriage to their former next-door neighbor Ann Deever, who is not only the daughter of Joe’s imprisoned business partner, but the fiancée of the missing war hero Larry.

Art Manke directs the cast of nine with precision and passion. They project emotion with an assured power you might expect in a Greek tragedy. Characters function as parts of an overriding theme, but, true to Miller’s text, they are always recognizable humans, never predictable one-note stage ideologues.

As the obsessed Kate, Carlin never loses touch with the woman’s warm-hearted underlying motherhood. She keeps insisting that Larry has to return because having him back is the secret, risky scaffolding that holds together her commitment to her family and her culpable spouse.

In the central demanding role of Joe, Gilmore is a challenge and a surprise. He is an actor who catches the spark of a reaction or a burst of feeling with such a quick sensitivity and moves with such an athletic ease that he is a very different guy from solider patriarchal Joe Kellers I have seen in other productions. The youth and immediacy of his approach often make his encounters with Tommy Gorrebeeck’s intense and idealistic Chris seem more like the clash of siblings than the conflict of a father with his son. But you can’t stop liking everything he does or watching him move, listen and respond to others with such adroit clarity.

Sierra Jolene is a beautiful, strong and coherent Ann. In many ways the play’s most courageous character, she holds a secret that sparks the final explosion of tragic truth. Brian Smolin is effectively scary and puzzling in a white-faced second-act appearance as her indignant, brooding brother George. Down to the smallest supporting role the cast tell the story with a thoroughness and commitment that deserves bouquets all around.

Trudging back to the parking lot, I crossed paths with two fellow patrons who professed themselves “stunned” by what they had just seen. It’s that kind of play and production.

It continues at the Colligan through October 1st.

In the Heights

6ce83f08-5c79-4c2b-a638-eee31e400c88 By Philip Pearce

IN THE HEIGHTS, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s pre-Hamilton rap musical, hit the Western Stage last weekend with the energy of an express train and the explosive joy of a sky rocket. The hip-hop score was belted out with power and precision and the choreography often seemed not so much a pattern of dance as a session of acrobatics.

As a child of the Big Band Era, I was daunted at the prospect of understanding all those whirling staccato lyrics. But they were peppered out with such in-your-face clarity that I got the gist and often even the detail of what the exuberant cast were singing about.

Miranda and librettist Quiara Alegría Hudes focus on the Hispanic world of New York’s Washington Heights, much as Spike Lee did with a racially mixed area of Brooklyn in Do the Right Thing. It can’t, surely, be coincidence that, Hudes’ and Lee’s stories both open with everyone sweating out a Big Apple heat wave. But In the Heights, largely ignoring possible racial themes, deals with the more mundane and familiar family and economic struggles of a group of highly motivated immigrants.

A dynamic CSU Monterey Bay graduate named Chris Marcos, who also did the choreography, starts the story off with a bang. As Usnavi, the wistful but wise proprietor of a busy bodega that’s a kind of community center for the local barrio, he offers a compelling opening musical introduction (“In the Heights”) to the hopes and dreams of each of the principal characters. Only in Act 2 do we learn that his unusual first name reflects the fact that the first piece of America seen by his Dominican Republic family was a vessel labeled “U.S. Navy.”

Every character he introduces is perfectly cast and tirelessly energetic. There’s Velvet Piini as Nina, a Local Girl Makes Good who returns home to reveal that she hasn’t. She pauses to steady her nerves (“Breathe”) before facing her ambitious parents, played by Ron Perez and Christina McGovern, with the unwelcome news that she’s been kicked out of Stanford. She finds an ally—and ultimately a lover—in the person of Benny (William Carl Stallings III) the personable African-American dispatch assistant in her parents’ taxi service. Usnavi meanwhile carries a torch for Vanessa (Heather Mae Steffen), a neighborhood beauty who longs to flee the barrio into a Manhattan apartment, far from her job in the hair salon of a busybody named Daniela, played with lots of comic panache by Brianne Lopez. Comforting and counseling anyone who needs a kind word and a helping hand is Jaqui Hope as the wise and kindly Abuela Claudia. Her song “Paciencia y fe” (“Patience and Faith”) offers a welcome pause in the headlong rush of high-powered musical numbers.

There are strong performances by Evandra Aurelia as an amiable dumb blonde named Carla, Michael Blackburn moving a pushcart full of shaved ice and grenadine as Piragua Guy, Nico Abiera, armed with explosive energy and a can of paint spray in the role of Graffiti Pete, and Sonny (Arick Arzadon) a cheeky and athletic errand boy at Usnavi’s bodega.

Just as good are members of an ensemble consisting of Aubree Grider, Isabella Perez, Alejandro Albino, Louie Gonzales, Jordan Gomez and Anthony M. Turpin-Guzman.

It’s a wonderful collection of talented performers, directed by Lorenzo Aragon with an eye to quick action and strong characterization. Don Dally and a nine-piece orchestra give flexible and exciting musical support. The prevailing musical energy and focused acting almost but don’t quite hide the fact that much of the plot is shallow, predictable and generic. In a world where works like Oklahoma!, Guys and Dolls and Sweeney Todd are still around to mount strong stories as well as great music, In the Heights offers a script that solves all its major plot problems by having somebody win the lottery.

Never mind. It won a Best Musical Tony and it’s pretty easy to forget the banal story line and roar happily along with the zip and drive of the musical numbers.

It continues on the Hartnell Mainstage through September 16th.